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Is Terminating the Visiting Forces Agreement Bad for the Philippines?

The termination of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) between the Philippines and the United States has become a lightning rod. President Duterte’s call for the termination due to Sen. Bato de la Rosa’s U.S. tourist visa cancellation (because of a ban signed by President Donald Trump to hold those responsible for the incarceration of Sen Leila de Lima and those involved in the drug war’s extra judicial killings) was deemed personal and inappropriate. Sen. De la Rosa was Duterte’s Philippine National Police (PNP) chief when he declared his drug war. Thus, Duterte is invested.

Duterte gave the U.S. 30 days to reinstate De la Rosa’s visa or he will serve the termination. The notice has been served the other day despite opposition from Philippine senators who felt the need for their involvement in the decision since the VFA is a treaty ratified by the Philippine senate. The VFA is an Executive Agreement and was never submitted to the U.S. Congress for ratification as a treaty.

The senators will challenge Duterte’s decision in court but Duterte will most likely have his way unless he changes his mind (i.e. De la Rosa’s visa is renewed). Since the U.S. did not accord the agreement the importance of a treaty, even President Donald Trump can rescind it without consulting the U.S. Senate. Their only obligation (Duterte & Trump) is to serve the notice and they have 180 days or six months to do something about it.

The U.S. Secretary of Defense called it an “unfortunate” development but did not categorically stated if the U.S. will honor or resist the termination. As in other matters, the U.S. will let it play out as close as possible to the deadline to get a sense of what the overriding sentiments are. In the end, the United States military will recognize the importance of the VFA to its own national interest and will try to find a middle ground like quietly renewing the visa. But much like in the Philippines where the military will not dare cross the president, American generals and admirals are similarly situated.

Here are some thoughts to ponder thought. First, Philippine senators and other politicians are looking at it more for the benefit of the Americans instead of Philippine interest beyond the material side of it. “We will lose important training and military aid,” seems to be the chorus. It is almost repeating the same kind of conversations that took place back in 1991 when the Philippine Senate voted to kick the Americans out despite a plea from then President Corazon Aquino.

The main argument is that the Philippines will suffer more because of the loss of military and economic support from the U.S. including defending the Philippines against China, if a war breaks out. The argument posits that without the VFA, the other treaties like the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) that allows each country to come to the aid of the other in the event of a military attack or the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) that allows the Americans military troops and civilians to rotate its personnel on a “temporary” basis including building structures to support their in country deployment.

The VFA provides legal cover for military personnel of both sides, if they find themselves in legal trouble while deployed or on temporary training. Without it, Americans will not deploy there for lack of legal protections. How many Filipino soldiers actually deploy to America? A few gets to train in mainland U.S. and a Philippine ship will do a port visit in Guam. So the question becomes, how important are these agreements to both countries?

The VFA for the Philippines is a key ingredient to receive military aid and training including access to special operations and terrorism related training in the United States. Deployment of U.S. troops in the Philippines do benefit locals economically from their presence but not in a big way. The country also benefits during calamities with American support because of prepositioned materials in country.

An important aside to this regarding military hardware donations especially the big ticket items such as ships and planes, is that they are second hand and not state of the art technology. Thus, the need to have a maintenance contract with American suppliers. If the Philippines wants better technology, then it has to spend its own money like it did buying some South Korean jets or Israeli weaponry. The question to overcome is, are these bennies really necessary to upgrade the Philippine military posture and to what degree?

The hard truth is that none of the ASEAN countries will invade another member because historically, ASEAN has been an ideal alliance model for maintaining peace in the region. China’s expansionist ambition in the South China Sea is precipitated by competition with the United States for regional hegemony or superpower status. The Philippines is but a pawn in this competition. The only real military threat before to the Philippines was China’s military support for the New People’s Army but that has long stopped with the fall of communism.

Part of the Filipino reluctance to embrace China or Russia for that matter as new patrons is its own natural bias towards the Chinese. The Russians not so much. Filipinos don’t know enough to hate or love them other than Sylvester Stallone’s feat against the Russians in the silver screen.

The other hard truth is that the Philippines will never become a military regional power and has no real impetus to reach that status other than crime fighting. When China built those bases in the South China Sea in the late 90’s and early millennium, they were aided by corrupt Filipino leaders both at the local and national level by approving mining contracts that allowed the Chinese to literally ship and dump Philippine soil on these islands – while America watched.

For the Americans, however, the VFA is of paramount importance to the MDT and EDCA to defend their national interest – the Philippines (i.e. strategic location, large petroleum deposit, deep waters for its naval ships, skilled and English speaking workers, and a pro-American populace); by counter-balancing China’s expansionism.

Bottom line, the U.S. will want to stay because it impacts the U.S. defense strategy more than the Philippines. Thus exploiting the sentiments of Filipino legislators and some retired military men who cry Uncle puts pressure on Duterte and serves the U.S. purpose. The ukay-ukay military hardware and military aid, are loose change and help clean up the junk yard. The joint operations training benefits both countries and therefore, not a real advantage. Providing intelligence to help suppress ISIS growth in Mindanao is also beneficial to the U.S. to keep the fight there in Mindanao and away from the homeland.

But American presence and support is good for the Philippine oligarchs’ bottom lines. So, local politicians who benefit from these oligarchs will lead the charge to keep the VFA and to bedevil Duterte. Go figure!

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